Viet Nam News
By Nguyễn Hiếu
The story happened about sixty years ago. Back then my village was still overgrown with bamboo. Storks took refuge in the bamboo groves all around the village every evening. The village was split into two parts: one inside the dike and the other, outside it. The villagers inside the dike farmed and those outside were non-agricultural people. My family lived outside the dike. Many families worked on boats taking people across the river, while many others worked as fishermen. But there was only one family, Mr. Cổn’s family, which slaughtered pigs and prepared pig blood curd for sale. His eldest daughter Nhãn could be seen carrying a tray of pig blood curd on her head every morning. Mr. Cổn’s pig blood curd was much sought after in the area because of its tastiness. In the village, there was also a cải lương (reformed opera) art troupe. Those who wanted to join had to be good-looking. A young man, Lũi, as ugly as he was, was recruited to the troupe to work as an assistant. But when the war was raging, all the young men in the village had to join the army and there were no more men to perform cảilương plays. As a result, the village’s art troupe was dissolved. We had to work our fingers to the bone to earn a living, but remained poor. The whole village had only thatch-roofed houses. We had to use water from the Cái River for everything. But there were two families, Mr. Phởn’s and Mr. Chí’s who were better off, because they were truck drivers. They built rain water tanks for their families. These two families had some similarities: each of them had three or four daughters and one son. Mr.Phởn’s son was two or three years older than men. He was fat and pale, always expressing his disdain towards me, while the son of Mr. Chí was five years younger than me. His name was Mân. We were not on good terms either. One day, Mân said to me:
“My sister Lam wants to see you tomorrow”
Miss Lam was pretty compared to Mân’s other sisters. She had dimples on her cheeks. Lũi, ugly as he was, liked Miss Lam very much. When the cải lương troupe was still active, Lũi tried all ways and means to join it to be near Miss Lam. When all the young men in the village joined the army, the village was almost deserted. I, being a green horn, also loved her, even though I knew it was an impossible love. Yet, now she asked to see me. What a nice surprise! All my limbs were trembling for joy and fear.
I was walking after Mân when I saw Miss Lam. She gave some money to Mân, asking him to go and buy ice cream. When Mân had gone, she gave me a stool and asked me to sit with her. Then she showed me her rosy white hand and its long, delicate fingers.
“Can you read my palm and tell if my dear boyfriend is still on the battlefront?”
I was still overwhelmed, unable to understand what she said. So I asked her again shyly:
“Who’s your boyfriend?”
Miss Lam beamed. Her beautiful eyes looked at me:
“Oh, you don’t knowhim! Mr. Quân! Last year, I went to visit my aunt in Lào Cai and met Quân. When he joined the army and was about to be sent to the South, he tried to look for me in my house to say good-bye to me. He is now in the South, I think!”
“Really? But I…..”
“Here’s my hand. Look at it and read. Will Quân return?”
“I know nothing about it” – I said to her, refusing her hand.
Miss Lam smiled, thrusting her hand into mine:
“Don’t hide it from me. My brother Mân said that you could read palms and tell one’s fate. Nobody in this village knows that my father has two wives, but you do. It’s true that my father has another wife in Hải Phòng. So, please help me! Will my Quân come back home?”
Her soft hand lay on mine. My spine was running cold and hot. I inhaled vigorously and said in a low voice:
“He will be back home!”
“Will he? Where on my hand shows it?”
I was dazzled and my head was swirling. I took her hand and showed her the place that showed it.
From then on, Miss Lam liked me very much. She bought me a ball because she knew that I liked football. Sometimes, she bought me candies and popcorn. She told me about her meeting with Quân on a train. They talked with each other and got to know each other.
Time went by. I went to work in the city. The bustle of life made me forget the past. Only until recently, when I got old, did my home village suddenly become so near and dear to me with all the memories flooding back. I returned to my home village in May. I was surprised at the rapid changes in the village when someone patted my shoulder:
“Yes, it’s you! I thought you had forgot your village!”
After a moment of surprise, I recognised the woman. I said in shyness:
“It’s Lam, right?”
“You remember me! How long will you stay here? Come to my house this afternoon. My husband and I sometimes talk about you. What you said years ago was completely correct!”
I was stunned upon hearing her.
“You should come and see us. My husband Quân sometimes mentions you”
Now I remembered.
“Has your Quân returned?”
“You made a really good guess. Quân was wounded and had one leg amputated and lost one eye. He thought he could not meet me in such a condition. Fortunately, while he was in the hospital, he lay next to Lũi, our villager. They had talked with each other and Lũi learned about me and Quân. Lũi came back and told me about Quân’s situation. I rushed to come and see Quân in the hospital. At first Quân tried to refuse me because he did not want to make me suffer from seeing him. But Lũi and I persuaded him. Now, do come and see him and our children and grandchildren!”
I stood in silence for a moment, wondering how in such a fierce war, happiness still came to people like Lam and Quân.-VNS
Translated by Mạnh Chương